Activities & Lessons

10 Fun Thanksgiving Activities for Elementary Students

8 Min Read
Thanksgiving Activities Elementary Hero

A turkey made out of leaves. A no-bake pumpkin pie. A look at the native land you live on. We've put a twist on traditional Thanksgiving activities for elementary students.

Have your students try one or more of our hands-on projects and activities to celebrate the holiday while boosting their math, reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills. Of course, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving if we didn't take time out to show our gratitude. At HMH, we're thankful for all the educators who work hard every day to shape students' lives.

Thanksgiving Lesson Plan Ideas and Activities

No hand-traced turkeys here! Try these fun Thanksgiving activities and lesson plan ides with your elementary students.

1. Word Play

What’s a turkey’s favorite dessert? Challenge students to unscramble the Thanksgiving-related words in our Word Scramble to get the punch line. To extend the activity, have students write a silly or serious story using every word in the jumble. You might also start a class discussion about the words. Ask: If you celebrate Thanksgiving, do these words reflect your family’s traditions? What words would you keep, delete, or add? Finally, students can continue the word play by creating their own word jumble with a different theme. Some themes they might choose: autumn, harvest, or fall sports.

2. Explore Native Lands

Before Europeans arrived in North America, it is estimated that more than 50 million people already lived there. There were once tribal lands (and still are) where there are now states, cities, and houses. Where a tribe was located—the plains, the plateau, or the subarctic—determined how the tribe lived, hunted, and traveled.

Even though the Native American population stands at closer to 4.5 million today, those native lands remain, and should be respected and understood, especially in the context of Thanksgiving. You can find out which native land your school is on at native-land.ca by searching for your zip code and reviewing the history of that tribe. How did they live, what did they eat, and what stories did they tell?

3. Build a Turkey

A classic classroom Thanksgiving craft is, of course, the hand-traced turkey, with each finger colored in and the thumb as the bird’s head. If you feel like changing it up this year, try building a turkey tail from fallen leaves.

What you will need:

  • 2 pieces of paper
  • Scissors
  • Scotch tape or liquid glue
  • Crayons, colored pencils, or markers
  • 1 heavy book
  • A handful of dried leaves

Step 1: Collecting the Leaves

Have students go outside and collect the colorful leaves that have fallen from the trees in your area. Once they have collected the leaves, make sure that they are dry, then spread them out and place something heavy (like a book) on top of them to flatten out their curls. A quick lesson on the difference between deciduous and evergreen trees may also be incorporated into this step.

Step 2: Coloring the Body

While the leaves are flattening, have the kids cut a turkey body out of paper by folding a paper in half, then cutting two connected half circles from the paper. The result, once the paper is unfolded, should look like a small snowman. (See the step-by-step pictures below.) Now have kids color in the body and add a beak and eyes to the smaller circle for the face.

Step 3: Build a Turkey

Once their turkeys are complete, collect the flattened leaves, and arrange them in a fan on a piece of paper. Attach the leaves to the paper with either Scotch tape at the stem or with liquid glue. The turkey body may also be secured by rolling tape into circles and pressing down over the bottom of the leaf fan. Placing a book over the final product to flatten it more will help keep any glue in place.

Thanksgiving Activities Steps 1

4. Volunteer Virtually

You and your students can help lend a hand or spread cheer to those in need. Encourage students to visit with elderly neighbors. If they can't make it in person, they can make a phone call or do a video chat. They might also leave a card or letter in an elderly neighbor’s mailbox, or do yard work or other outdoor chores for them. Students can also volunteer at soup kitchens and help round up canned goods to donate.

5. Break with Tradition

The great thing about a tradition is that anyone can start one! We may be used to thinking that Thanksgiving must include the perfect Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, but not everyone may want these foods on their table at holiday time. Plus, the topic of food may be sensitive for some students, so consider having students create a tradition that doesn't involve food instead.

Anything can be a tradition! Let students make up a tradition that involves an activity they care about, such as singing, dancing, playing a sport, or visiting a place. Have your students invent their new tradition—something to celebrate Thanksgiving without any of the expectation for what the holiday should be. Tell them that they'll have to write a paragraph explaining why this would make a good yearly tradition. What does it mean to them and their families?

6. No-Bake Pumpkin Pie

Reading recipes is a fun way for students to follow directions and practice math. Tell students they’re going to read a no-bake pumpkin pie recipe. Ask: What ingredients do you think are in the pie? Make a list of student predictions. Then have them check their predictions against the actual list. Get our No-Bake Pumpkin Pie activity sheet with the recipe. Students will answer comprehension questions about the recipe and complete a challenge to double and triple the measurements. If possible, bring the ingredients to class and have students make the tasty pumpkin treat on their own.

7. Cornucopia Harvest Lesson

One of the classic symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. Usually depicted as a curved, horn-shaped basket overflowing with fall produce, the cornucopia was originally associated with harvest festivals in Europe.

Harvest times around the U.S. vary depending on the climate. Teach your students when to plant and when to harvest crops by consulting The Vegetable Planting Calendar for your state and seeing when would be the best time to fill your cornucopia with all of your favorites. For an added classroom or at-home craft, have the kids create a planting wheel calendar by drawing a circle with six lines running through the diameter and labelling each section with the name of a month. In each "pizza slice," they can draw a vegetable that can be planted during that month in their state.

8. Dancing Corn

Tell students that they're going to make popcorn kernels dance. Have them work in groups of four, with each student completing one of the steps below. Assign one student as the timekeeper. Tell them to stop the clock when the kernels stop moving and record the time.

What You Will Need:

  • A clear jar or glass
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 10 popcorn kernels
  • 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • Stopwatch

Directions:

Step 1: Pour the water in the glass

Step 2: Add baking soda and stir.

Step 3: Add popcorn kernels.

Step 4: Pour in vinegar.

Step 5: Watch the kernels dance!

Ask: What did you notice? What surprised you? What questions do you have? Do you think other objects will react the same way? Why or why not?

Share the science behind the dancing kernels with students. Tell them that the baking soda and vinegar create carbon dioxide bubbles. The bubbles stick to the popcorn kernels, allowing them to rise and then fall when the bubbles burst.

Try this experiment with other Thanksgiving-related items like cranberries or acorns. Ask students to predict if the new item will react the same way in the carbon-dioxide solution. Remember to have students time the reaction and compare it with the reaction time of the kernels.

9. Gratitude Poster

Remind students that being grateful and giving thanks are at the heart of Thanksgiving. Have students identify a few things that they are grateful for in their lives. This can be as simple as, "I'm grateful for my classmates," or " I'm grateful for learning new things." Have them list things they are grateful for on a poster that they can decorate. Display the posters in the classroom for Thanksgiving and beyond to encourage classroom positivity.

For older students, take this lesson further with a writing assignment. Have them write a few paragraphs on what they are grateful for or what Thanksgiving means to them.

10. Thanksgiving Trivia

Separate students into teams of four students. Challenge them to come up with a Thanksgiving-related name for their team. Write team names on the board. Keep score with tally marks under the team names. Tell students they get one point for each correct answer.

Next, give each group the same number of sticky notes as there are trivia questions. Tell them that they'll write their answers on the sticky notes. Read aloud each trivia question, providing one minute for students to discuss and agree on an answer. Once they've all written their response on the note, have them stick it on the board under their team name.

After all the questions have been answered, review the answers and add up the tally marks. Be sure to have some backup questions in case of a tie, and a simple prize for the winning team. Another option is to create an online multiple-choice quiz that students can take individually or in pairs.

Example Thanksgiving Trivia Questions:

  • Which sport is traditionally played on Thanksgiving? (football)
  • What is one traditional Thanksgiving food that was not at the event we call the "first Thanksgiving?" (turkey, pie)
  • Which U.S. president made Thanksgiving a national holiday? (Abraham Lincoln)
  • In which city does the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade take place? (New York City)
  • Which popular Christmas song was actually written for Thanksgiving? (Jingle Bells)
  • About how many turkeys are bought each Thanksgiving? (46 million)
  • How much does the heaviest turkey weigh, according to the Guinness Book of World Records? (86 pounds)
  • What is the annual White House tradition involving a turkey? (Each year, the president pardons a turkey.)

Share Your Thanksgiving Projects for Elementary Students

What are your go-to Thanksgiving lessons for elementary students? Whether it's an intricate hands-on project, a thought-provoking discussion question, a fun writing prompt, a mini-lesson, or a comprehensive lesson plan, we would love to take a look. And don't hesitate to send us a throwback lesson from your elementary school days! Share your favorites with us on Facebook, Instagram, or via email at shaped@hmhco.com. Our online community of teachers will be thankful you did!

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Want more Thanksgiving activity ideas for the classroom? Check out 9 Thanksgiving Classroom Activities, Games, and Crafts.

Find more classroom resources and activities on Shaped.

This blog, originally published in 2020, has been updated for 2023.

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